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The history of Sears Canada: From Catalogues to Collapse


Generations of Canadian kids dreamt about their toys in the Christmas Wish Book while their parents swore by the mattresses and appliances for decades.

Now after 65 years, Sears — the historic anchor of numerous malls and countless shopping excursions since the 1950s — appears to be about to join the many retail casualties that preceded it in Canada.

Sears Canada announced Tuesday that it is closing all operations across the country.

“It definitely was the solid and dependable place to go,” said Jean Rickli, senior retail adviser at J.C. Williams Group, a consulting firm.

Already a giant in the U.S., Sears first moved into Canada in 1952 as a partnership with Simpson’s national mail-order business, and morphed into Simpsons-Sears. Sears Roebuck Co. of Chicago was reportedly attracted north of the border by Simpson’s runaway success in Canada, with mail-order revenues soaring to $ 100 million in 1951.

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“It’s ironic that the firm that started e-commerce in Canada was ultimately a victim of it,” noted Ken Wong, marketing professor at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University.

Shopping at Simpson-Sears in the 1950s was an event, and department stores were often meeting places.
Shopping at Simpson-Sears in the 1950s was an event, and department stores were often meeting places.  (Hamilton Spectator photo)  

The next year saw the first bricks-and-mortar Simpsons-Sears open, in Stratford, Ont. It boasted the company’s long-standing guarantee of “satisfaction or your money back” as did its top rival, Eaton’s.

It was the golden era of the department store, when shopping was neither a pastime nor a necessity. It was an event. Women dressed up in their pillbox hats and pearls to peruse the latest styles. Even the elevator operators wore white gloves.

Eaton’s in Toronto had a 1,200-seat concert hall on its seventh floor, showcasing top talents such as Glenn Gould and Frank Sinatra.

Department stores were also meeting places, like at the famed Woolworth’s and Kresge’s lunch counters, the predecessor to the mall food court. And kids would delight at Sears’ in-store Santa and his elves, and families would come from miles around to see the downtown Toronto Eaton store window displays at Christmas.

Simpson-Sears catalogues started by offering household and fashion items, while farm and specialty merchandise were featured in smaller, targeted catalogues, according to AdAge.com .

The very first Simpsons-Sears catalogue landed on Canadians’ doorsteps in February of 1953. The spring-and-summer edition was a doorstopper at 556 pages, and featured Allstate car insurance, live baby chicks, saddles, and even radiation detectors (Geiger counters), according to the Canadian Museum of History website.

The Toronto Star at the time put to rest the notion that U.S.-based Sears would be marketing to country bumpkins in Canada:

City folk may hold the whimsical idea the catalogues are strictly for the out-of-touch back concessions. But when Farmer Brown’s wife leafs through a catalogue looking for a dress, she is used to seeing the garments offered draped on lovely, highly paid professional models photographed very often in colour. And countless city-bred women, outside Toronto and Montreal, are kept fashion-wise and well-dressed through Simpsons’ catalogues,” the Star noted.

But the Simpsons-Sears brass realized that city slickers weren’t into catalogues, and so began a massive store expansion that continued for decades.

By 1954, nine new Simpsons-Sears stores had opened. A large, new catalogue-order centre was built in Burnaby, B.C., and the Halifax and Regina catalogue centres were enlarged. In the 1960s, Simpsons-Sears stores moved to suburban malls, following Canadians as they bought homes on the outskirts of cities, according to the national museum.

The Richmond News reported that the B.C. city’s grand opening specials in 1964 included toilet paper for five cents a roll, bedspreads for $ 9.99, vinyl asbestos tiles for 10 cents apiece, cartons of cigarettes for $ 2.99 and women’s flannel pyjamas for $ 1.99.

The first stand-alone Sears banner store opened in 1973, and by 1978, the Hudson’s Bay Company had acquired the Simpson Company, dissolving the Simpsons-Sears partnership.

“Certainly, when I was starting out, I went to Sears for their Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances,” said marketing professor Wong, referring to some of Sears’ top-selling brands.

And until Sleep Country came around in the 1990s, the store was the top seller of mattresses in Canada, he added.

In 1998, Sears Canada launched its e-commerce website, becoming one of the first retailers in Canada to do so.

To commemorate the anniversary of the Sears Wish Book in 2012, then-CEO Calvin McDonald hand-delivered some of the Christmas catalogues. The next year the company, launched what turned out to be a popular app for the catalogue.

In July — just days after liquidation sales began at the first Sears stores slated for closure — Sears Canada Inc. was delisted from the Toronto Stock Exchange.

TORONTO STAR

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